Tajikistan: how a small group of volunteers saved their community from an impending disaster

For over a decade, the European Union has been funding disaster risk reduction initiatives across Central Asia, one of the most disaster prone regions of the planet, vulnerable in particular to earthquakes, floods, yearly landslides and mudflows, and droughts.

Volunteers of the community emergency response team from Barsem stand on the rubble remaining from the massive mudflow which came crashing from the gorge above. © EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash

The life-saving impact of disaster risk reduction initiatives was never as visible as in the small hamlet of Barsem, in eastern Tajikistan, where, thanks to the training they received, a group of volunteers managed to save their entire community when a massive mudflow came crashing down on their village, destroying everything in its path.

Two years after the event, the magnitude of what unfolded in the remote hamlet of Barsem is still shockingly visible. Located at the foot of a mountain range, along a fast flowing river of Eastern Tajikistan, the village is literally cut in half by what still looks like a huge open scar: the stream which comes down the hillside is surrounded by a wide trench of dried mud and imposing boulders running from the gorge above to the river below.

At the bottom, the riverbed has been altered by the impact of the flow of debris, to such an extent that a two kilometre long lake has formed immediately upstream of the impact point, flooding houses located along the old riverbank.

On the opposite side, the road had to be rebuilt higher, and a temporary military bridge is all that is available to reach the hamlet after the original bridge was swept away.

“You would not believe the quantity of mud and stones that came down this mountain. It lasted a full nine days, though most of the damage happened in the first four,” says Dilkusho Muborakshoev. The man is somewhat of a hero in the area: though a simple villager, he coordinated the team of volunteers who evacuated the entire village hours before the disaster struck.

“It was during the rainy season, when we know that there is a higher risk of mudslides, so we were monitoring the situation closely”, he recalls.

Having been trained in disaster risk reduction under an EU-funded project implemented by the NGO Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS) as part of the worldwide disaster preparedness programme known as DIPECHO, his team had actually alerted the local authorities they thought there was a high risk of something big happening soon only two days before the event.

“We had seen the colour of the water in the stream changing, and our weather monitoring showed it had been unusually hot for three days in a row — a combination which we knew from our training could be announcing a mudflow,” explains Muyassar Gadnasabekov, another team member.

Government representatives from the committee for emergency situations (CoES) and technical experts from FOCUS had then visited the village, and confirmed the risk, but the impending disaster was so high up the mountain that nobody could determine for sure if and when it would come crashing down. On full alert, the community emergency response team (CERT) headed by Dilkusho Muborakshoev had set up a rotation system of volunteers higher up the gorge, above the village, to monitor the situation and sound the alert should something happen.

“On the afternoon of July 16th, we decided to start evacuating the families who were living closest to the stream, starting with the women, children, and elderly people,” he explains. “Other volunteers came from surrounding villages and together we helped these families gather their belongings and reach the safe havens we had identified for such a scenario when we had done the hazard mapping of the village under the FOCUS project.”

An incredibly timely judgement, as a few hours later, at 3 AM in the morning, the first waves of debris came tumbling down, sweeping away the houses of some of these very families. Had they remained inside, they would have surely perished.

Considering the size of the first waves, the volunteers then evacuated more people, as they feared the debris path could be larger than initially foreseen. And indeed, this was only the beginning of a major crisis, as massive quantities of mud and rocks would continue to bring destruction to the hamlet for the next four days. Overall, 86 houses were destroyed, out of a total of 202, yet not a single person was harmed.

The mudflow was so large it altered the course of the river below. © EU/ECHO/Pierre Prakash

On the morning following the first waves of debris, while the disaster was still unfolding, some of the volunteers had hiked several kilometres to fetch the emergency relief items which had been stockpiled in a dedicated container for such a situation as part of the project, which covered multiple villages. Returning with tents, blankets and hygiene kits, they put their camp management training to use by setting up proper camps in the two safe havens where the villagers had evacuated, complete with latrines and a safe fire zones.

“Since the bridge connecting the village to the road had been swept away, we were on our own to respond, but we were very confident as we had received proper training and done many drills,” smiles Dilkusho Muborakshoev. Indeed, the CERT had been created in Barsem back in 2009, with all members receiving an initial six day training followed by two day refresher courses every year since.

“The story of Barsem is really a textbook case study of what community-based disaster preparedness can achieve,” reflects Ruslan Bobov, head of the operational research department from FOCUS.

The last time we had a similar scenario in this area, before any of these CERT teams were created, 22 people were killed. This time, not only did no one die, but people even managed to save their most important belongings. The expertise and confidence these volunteers showed when faced with such a large scale disaster is truly impressive. It proves beyond doubt that the years of work put by FOCUS and the EU in building the resilience of these remote communities have had a life-saving impact”.

By Pierre Prakash, Regional Information Officer for Asia Pacific, EU Humanitarian Aid

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